23 November 2009

Drole de Felix and Western: Cultural Identity and Cultural Exchange in Two French Films

This essay, which I wrote as part of a European Film course is special to me due to my Lebanese lineage and French nationality. I am familiar with what it means to be a beur as conceived in the film, Drôle de Félix.

Beur is a collective term meaning 'Arabe' in verlan (French slang where word letters are reversed). While not having lived in France long enough to grapple with the conflicting experience of being perceived as a beur by fellow French citizens, I can envision that my father and his siblings, had they lived in France and not Senegal during their adult years, would have been regarded as beur and treated as such. Knowing about my father's low socio-economic background and his primary school level of education, and given his so called beur background, it is dubious whether living in France during the 70s and 80s would have blessed him with the opportunities that he was able to make for himself in Senegal.

Living in Senegal, we were though, French citizens with the ability to live in France. But it makes sense why my parents chose to emigrate to Australia, rather than France. They had justification to believe that more opportunities would exist for their children in Australia than in France. I am grateful to them.

At the same time, I recognise that there is a dark cloud looming. Australia has never experienced the 'Arab' presence that France due to its colonial past and its post-colonial policies has known for decades. What Australia will be like then, in the future, I do not know. But it remains disturbing to realise that the racial tensions in Cronulla, back in 2008 and the stereotypical hostility of NSW police vis-a-vis Lebanese youths are so reminiscent of themes in the French film, La Haine.

Vinz, Said and Hubert, in La Haine

There is a term in social psychology relating to intergroup relations, called the superordinate group. It is an umbrella identification that allows separate (ethnic or religious) groups to each retain their own unique identity but at the same time, to also be unified under one common identity, the superordinate group. For example, a high school student may feel strongly about being in the debating team but will also identify under a common Grade 12 group (the superordinate). Similarly a man may identify with being a Chinese migrant while also being an Australian citizen (the superordinate).

According to social psychologists, an ideal social structure for limiting conflict is one that respects the uniqueness of disparate groups while also advocating for one common, superordinate group. This structure allows groups to differentiate themselves (a primary need of group and individual identity) while also giving all groups a common goal and identity at the level of the superordinate group. It is this common goal and common identity that needs to prevail when conflicts are imminent between say, Lebanese Australians and White Australians. It must be salient enough to immediately impact on individual attitudes and ultimately cascade into individual and group behaviour.

Government policies, law-enforcing agents, the media and the judicial are key institutions that may help define the superordinate or alternatively, may negatively influence the individual to abandon any commonality they share with the superordinate group and instead revert to their disparate group identity.

Unfortunately aside from 'drink' (with its associated mateship) and 'sport', I honestly can not think of what it means to be Australian. It is further unfortunate that 'drink' can often lead to inebriation and conflict while 'sport' encourages people to think in terms of separate international and national teams. I think that's where the Australian superordinate breaks down.


Western (1997) and Drôle de Félix (2000) vary in their exploitation of the road movie genre and in the way their migrant or minority characters either assert or subdue their plural identities over the course of their journey. Both films feature the road movie theme of hospitality to advance notions relating to contemporary forms of migrant-host relations and the ideals of multiculturalism. In Western, hospitality is underlined by strict, yet unstated rules of exchange between guest and host. This essay focuses on the unusual hospitality exchange between the main characters, Nino and Paco. Meanwhile, Drôle de Félix employs hospitality themes to voice the unresolved national prejudice towards North African-French or beurs in France. Finally, both films use the strangers encountered along their characters’ journey to advocate a utopian ideal of non-biological family ties.

Western suggests that national identity is not just dependent on where one is from but is instead an all encompassing multicultural hybrid that transcends regional boundaries. To illustrate this message, Western’s narrative sees its characters proudly assert their complex identities. During a discussion with Jean-Baptiste, Nino introduces himself as a Russian immigrant of Italian origin, Paco indicates that he is a Spaniard of Catalan origin and Baptiste introduces himself as a Breton originating from the Ivory Coast. The three men jokingly keep count of strangers who betray more homogenous notions of identity, and certainly prejudice, by refusing to acknowledge a greeting or by asking one of the protagonists to “return to his country”. In this scene, Western essentially opposes traditional integrationist views of French identity. Western’s non-diegetic music supplements this discourse of plurality by becoming less matched to the character’s background over time. While an early scene pairs Andalusian music with scenes relating to the Spaniard, Paco, later scenes employ more hybrid music such as flamenco strings over shots of the Brittany countryside. The closing credits also follow this theme, with each crew member’s name appearing beside the flags of their home country and countries of origin in recognition of their complex identity. Together, the music and credits echo the film’s ideology by evincing an acceptance for plural identities.

Catalan Paco and Nino the Russian migrant of Italian origin

Western also exploits the road movie genre using the theme of hospitality to examine how migrants may belong to a host country but only on certain conditions. While it is true that Paco and Nino encounter various strangers who lay out their own hospitality rules, the focus of this essay is the hospitality that the two protagonists offer each other and the conditions they unconsciously impose on their respective invitation. Throughout Western, Paco and Nino effectively invite each other to stay with newly met acquaintances and each find their hospitality expectations violated. Nino invites Paco to a dinner with Guénalle and her sister with the expectation that perhaps the two men will find their attractions reciprocated and will enjoy a good time, or that Paco will not have a romantic advantage. As it turns out, only Paco invites the women’s attraction which ultimately enrages Nino during a wedding scene. Conversely, when Paco invites Nino to Nathalie’s place, he does so, never expecting that Nino will become Nathalie’s romantic interest and to a degree, his invitation hinges on this very condition. However when the rules of hospitality are transgressed such that Nathalie and Nino grow closer, Paco seethes and becomes aggressive towards Nino. At the national level, this form of hospitality could be defined as a metaphor for the host country whereby as explained by Rosello (9) the migrant is welcomed to France on the condition that he works cheaply or that the host country benefits in some way. This form of hospitality demands that if guests or migrants are to be accepted, they must serve a purpose and certainly not gain more success than their hosts.

Unlike the overtly stated hybrid identities in Western, Drôle de Félix’s narrative tends to underplay Félix’s beur background with the protagonist appearing to identify mostly with being Norman. To begin, Félix seems at home in a world that contrasts sharply with the poverty, crowding, low- income and poor education that typifies the beur’s banlieu (Rosello 5). The well groomed Félix is seen enjoying a seafood dinner in an expensive French restaurant with his Gallic partner. Interior shots of their apartment provide a glimpse of Western contemporary portraits hanging on the wall. Félix’s level of education is also apparent when he points out the oddity of featuring Aristotle on a cathedral. Finally, Félix’s addiction to soap operas hints to an affinity with French popular culture through television. Félix not only appears as a fully integrated Northern French, he seems matter-of-fact with his marginal identities of homosexual and HIV positive individual. To illustrate what Pratt refers to as “incidental” homosexuality and HIV-status (89), Félix is shown routinely sorting pills and casually discussing new HIV drugs in a clinic to highlight the mundane aspect of his illness. In addition, nude scenes with his partner and his “cousin”, together with a visit to a gay bar with his “brother”, indicate that Félix is at peace with his homosexual identity. By contrast, the only hint that Félix may partly identify with his beur background is the non-diegetic Maghrebi music which sometimes accompanies his road journey and his opposition to the extreme-right Front National party.

Despite what seems an understated beur identity, Félix remains conscious of how he is often negatively perceived as beur by others. The racist crime in Rouen and Félix’s subsequent hesitation at the police station recalls a softer version of La Haine (1995). That is, both films allude to multi- ethnic tensions and what Hayward and Vincendeau (321) refer to as French police intolerance vis-a-vis Arab youths. In La Haine, one of the characters indicates that “an Arab does not survive for more than an hour in a police station”. This intertextuality may explain the fear and shame that overwhelm Félix as he witnesses a beur youth in handcuffs and decides to avoid the French police. Through his fear, Félix is suddenly confronted with his undesirable beur identity as seen by others, including the prejudiced bar owner. Drôle de Félix suffers from what O’ Shaughnessy calls “a refusal of a narrative of origin” (151) because Félix avoids dealing with his beur identity.

Following his encounter with the crime scene, Félix’s journey to supposedly find his father is put into question. In fact, it can be envisaged as a subterfuge to both run away from Rouen but also to run away from himself and a beur identity which he finds difficult to endorse in view of the shame it arouses. Félix’s quest is first put into question when Mathilde refuses to believe that he is looking for his father. Mathilde remarks that he is using the road trip as an excuse. Later, after a car collusion, where Félix is insulted, he pre- empts further insults by asking the other driver, “Why don’t you call me a dirty Arab while you’re at it?” This outburst hints to his mental preoccupation and self-consciousness.

What invites consternation is that Félix is so comfortable with his homosexuality or his dramatic illness and never overtly grieves at being unemployed but all the while feels so much shame from his ethnic background due to social and racial prejudice. The film never resolves Félix’s shame. This lack of resolution serves as a metaphor for how, in France, unfavourable notions of beurs and their often unjustified link to crime continue unabated whereas homosexuality, HIV and unemployment are to some degree treated with more supportive social structures (Pratt 89).

In terms of family belonging, both Western and Drôle de Félix suggest that shared biological background does not dictate a person’s sense of belonging. On a national level, this parallels Western’s focus on multiculturalism as a utopian ideal. In a mirroring shot of Félix and his “grandmother” having breakfast, Mathilde is presented as similar to Félix in her television habits and drug ingestion routine. They are also both alone, her as an elderly disenchanted by her relatives and him to the degree that he is an orphan. The two are harmoniously engaged even though they differ in age and ethnic background. Along his road journey, Félix effectively meets with his “brother”, “cousin”, “grandmother”, “sister” and “father”.

Mathilde and Félix - soulmates

Drôle de Félix's structure therefore alludes to the question of non-biological family ties with Félix slowly beginning to understand that biological bonds are not necessary for a sense of belonging and happiness. One of the turning points for Félix’s family concept is when one of Isabelle’s sons tries to convince him of the legitimacy of his many stepfathers. Meanwhile, the “father”, a disatisfied family man, chooses to fish to get away from his family yet has a wonderful time flying a kite with Félix. This highlights the notion that people can in fact be miserable in their own biological family. Félix’s journey eventually curbs his need for a biological father so that he ends up venturing to Corsica with his partner. Western hints to similar family ideals through Nathalie’s passion for having children from different fathers and ethnic backgrounds. Nathalie’s joyful altruism regarding her multi-ethnic family contrasts with France’s unfulfilled pledge (Rosello 3) to be a truly altruistic host sheltering migrants from many different countries. At the national level then, both films advocate for multicultural communities where origin and blood relations make little difference as to whether people can co-exist happily or not.

Works Consulted:

Drôle de Félix. Dir. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, Pyramide Productions, 2000.

Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette. French Film: Texts and Contexts. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.

La Haine. Dir. Mathieu Kassovitz. Optimum Home Entertainment, 1995.

O’Shaughnessy, Martin. The New Face of Political Cinema: Commitment in French Film Since 1995. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.

Pratt, Murray. “Félix and the Light-Hearted Gay Road Movie: Genre, Families, Fathers and the Decolonization of the Homosexual Self.” Australian Journal of French Studies, 41.3 (2004): 88-101.

Rosello, Mireille. “Introduction: Immigration and Hospitality.” Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 1-22.

Western. Dir. Manuel Poirier. Lionsgate, 1997.

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